The communications industry is still in the very early stages of bringing NFV-based applications to market. Although many vendors have announced solutions or built ecosystems to create virtualized applications, the market for those solutions is still negligible and will remain so until the industry makes real progress towards operationalizing network functions virtualization (NFV)—in other words, implementing an on-demand, cloud-based environment for creating, fulfilling and assuring NFV applications. If this doesn’t happen, NFV may never get out of the lab environment or proof of concept stage.
NFV and software-defined networking (SDN) are driving a fundamental shift in the way communications service providers (CSPs) operate and compete. As a result, operationalization cannot be accomplished through technology alone but instead will also need to rely on the development of a rich ecosystem for open networks and application development as well as an across-the-board cultural change and cross-functional alignment.
Among the most important technological advancements in NFV is the creation of a closed loop among 3 essential functions: end-to-end service orchestration, policy management and network monitoring and analytics consisting of real-time and offline methods. Taken together these functions encompass the range of elements needed to automate NFV application fulfillment and assurance and, ultimately, generate revenue from those applications. Without automation, operators will not be able to improve time to market and service agility—two key goals of implementing NFV.
A closed-loop environment ensures proactive, real-time learning of customer and network behavior through advanced monitoring and analytics, which informs and continuously updates the policy engine, which then provides instructions to the orchestration platform to fulfill and assure services on demand. Closed-loop automation is especially critical for virtualized services such as firewall and WAN optimization, where service level agreements may change dynamically based on end-user application policies.
Operationalizing NFV extends beyond the capability of any one or a small number of operators, vendors, open source groups or standards organizations; an architectural shift of this magnitude requires agreement among all stakeholders. Not surprisingly, at this early stage of NFV adoption the activities among all key ecosystem groups are disjointed. There are too many competing agendas among standards organizations; open source efforts are progressing but many lack maturity for the CSP market (e.g. OpenStack); and too many vendors are resisting the inevitability of openness.
As a result, many operators are holding back investment until an ecosystem is more fully formed and works to their advantage. Ideas for remedies to this problem are not in short supply, but all must start with the same premise: each group in the ecosystem must work across boundaries and contribute to each other’s missions, where appropriate, to accelerate NFV innovation and adoption.
Unlike previous architectural shifts, such as the migration from TDM to IP, network virtualization is not an overlay deployment but an integration of solutions throughout the network and operational stacks. Therefore the number of internal stakeholders with a vested interest in NFV’s success is large and diverse, making alignment across key groups difficult (but imperative) to achieve.
Within CSP organizations, CTO, CFO and CIO groups often have divergent objectives that impede adoption and confuse the broader NFV business case. The critical first step in addressing this problem is establishing a cross-functional, dedicated NFV organization, anticipating how virtualization will change corporate culture. The operators that have taken this step are not only leading in bringing virtualized services to market; they’re influencing the direction of NFV technologies and standards in their favor.
This trifecta of requirements brings the total picture of NFV operationalization into sharp focus, but without strong buy-in at each checkpoint there could be numerous stumbling blocks on the road to getting NFV into production environments.
In future articles, we’ll take a closer look at the three areas that make up a holistic approach to getting NFV out of the lab and into the real world and what operators need to do to ensure a smooth transition for the coming changes.
Photo by Cathy with Creative Commons license
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